Populism is a contentious term; fraught with misunderstanding and misrepresentation. The term is applied both endearingly by the people and pejoratively by the media elites. The dictionary defines populism as “a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people.” This definition is apt, however, it is rather broad. The Encyclopedia Britannica defines populism as “a political program or movement that champions the common person, usually by favorable contrast with an elite,” and states that it “usually combines elements of the left and the right, opposing large business and financial interests but also frequently being hostile to established socialist and labor parties.” This definition of populism more accurately fits the concept of what we think of when we hear the term populist in today’s politics.
When one hears the word “populist” a few key figures come to mind. The most prominent example of a populist in most peoples’ minds is the 45th President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump. Across the pond, and sympathetic to Trumpian politics is Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom. On the left-wing side of political spectrum we have politicians such as Bernie Sanders whose campaign appeals to blue collar working class voters in America’s heartland. There is also a growing handful of populist politicians in the European Union who are strongly Euroskeptic and interested in leaving or dissolving the Union. These politicians are from many different ideologies; however, they are united by one thing, which is rallying the common people against the elites. Herein lies the core concept of populism, and why it is so appealing to people today. The current political landscape is no longer ultimately left versus right, although there is certainly room for debate there, but it is now global elites versus the common person.
The mainstreaming of populism in modern political discourse can be traced to a single speech from the 2016 United States presidential election. A moment in which Donald Trump bridged the gap between the working class liberals and working class conservatives. Trump would not have won if he did not sway those who voted for Obama, some of them twice over. He had to reach to these voters in heartland American states such as Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, and most shockingly Pennsylvania. He did this with a rousing speech, a clarion call against the global elites. On April 27th, 2016 from Washington D.C., Candidate Trump laid out his foreign policy proposals. In this speech he clearly and concisely laid out a populist foreign policy of nonintervention, immigration reform, and renewed trade relations. The moment of clarity came when Trump spoke out plainly against globalism saying:
We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony.
The implications of this sound bite rippled through out the world. Media elites from different countries pounced. They used it to call Donald Trump a “Know-Nothing” who appealed to the lowest common denominator and the alleged uneducated working class. They sneered in contempt at the idea of upholding nation-states. They found it reprehensible that someone would reject the concept of globalism. Globalism is another term that is thrown around the same way that populism is. Rife with misunderstanding and misrepresentations. Who would disagree that we are part of a global world? That trade and free movement of people is a bad thing? It seems like a no-brainer. However, the term globalism is a misnomer. It is not a movement that benefits the common people of the world. It is a function that only serves the elites. It’s the lopsided trade agreements that see American goods being replaced by ersatz Chinese knock-offs. It’s the structured economies of the European Union that redistribute commodities not based on market need but by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. It’s the unfettered flow of migrants into our homelands, destroying our culture and heritage and only benefiting elite multinational corporations who gain new sources of cheap labor. It’s Big Tech companies that want to sterilize our speech to be more advertiser friendly at the expense of freedom of expression. This is the true face of globalism. This is what the populists revolt against.
The future looks populist from anywhere you stand. With current approval ratings hovering at 50% Donald Trump seems poised to snatch reelection. It is truly his to lose. The recent elections in the European Union saw an increase in populist parties holding seats in European Parliament. The internet, ironically, is connecting the globe and uniting us against globalism. Left-wing politics have a hard time gaining a foothold in the memetic annals of the internet’s most far flung corners. The left can’t meme, is the popular saying of the populist right. The truth is people want to be a part of a nation-state. They want to have a shared culture and heritage. They want politicians and leaders who will stand up fiercely for their interests and put their own countries first. This is why Brexit happened, this is why Trump was elected, this is why the European Union is facing increased scrutiny from its own members.
Populism seems to be here to stay. It is not without its pitfalls, however. We must address the fact that populism has been used in the past to trick the common person into supporting policies that benefit the elite. We must also be wary of the fact that populism has been used to justify heinous acts of authoritarian tyranny. As with all things, populism is neither inherently good nor bad but it is implementation that can be good or bad. It has the potential to create a world in which all nations can live in harmony while still maintaining their national identity. Nationalism and brutish thuggery do not have to go hand-in-hand. The trick is in striking just the right balance.